The good, the bad and the way too bloody
By Anne Northgraves
War. What is it good for?
It may be many things, but war is a particularly good subject for films. There’s inherent conflict, danger and discovery. What exactly defines the perfect war film? Forrest Gump goes to Vietnam, but the feel-good classic isn’t exactly a movie focused on the struggles faced by those fighting in and architecting conflicts. A real war film is about those battles, the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be in the thick of things and the lives of the people down in the trenches.
So what makes an actual war movie good or bad?
There’s no set formula for the perfect war film. But by taking a critical eye to some of the most famous war movies, some interesting patterns emerge about the place of melodrama and romance (generally bad), blood and gore (appropriate good, excessiveness bad), historical accuracy (blatant disregard, bad), personal journeys (primarily good) and greater themes (good when not preachy).
Three Kings: Anyone who saw this first teaming of Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell knew to expect great things from last year’s drama The Fighter. The plot to steal Saddam’s gold was so simple, it was easy to predict that everything would go wrong. What was a happy surprise is how Three Kings touched on the soldiers’ feelings of impotency, wanting to do the right thing when they’re told, and portraying the consequences of so-called “victory” with humor and thoughtfulness.
Apocalypse Now: A fictional story, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalype Now is about a traumatized soldier sent deeper into the jungle and the depravity of human nature in search of a colonel gone rogue. The film captures the true insanity of war. From the innocent eagerness embodied by Laurence Fishburne’s child soldier and the death of that innocence, to the Jonestown-esque Commune that Colonel Kurtz builds around the crazy ego war has made of him, no other film has been able to so effectively put the audience through the psychological disturbance that is war.
Gettysburg: With a runtime of more than four hours, Gettysburg feels like it lasts as long as the three-day Civil War battle it portrays. But those four hours are filled with incredibly realistic battle—not overly stylized, not blood-baths of action, but real strategy that makes the historical facts seem new. This is balanced with the moments of quiet reflection between the fighting, when tough soldiers lament the division among old friends. More than 140 years after the events, Gettysburg captures the interesting psychology and visuals of warfare.
The Hurt Locker: What makes The Hurt Locker the most aesthetically successful film about the current Iraq War is that it doesn’t take sides—pro- or anti-war, American or Iraqi. The depictions of conditions for civilians and soldiers are disturbingly accurate in this rough, dangerous world. This provides the adrenaline rush that is the only escape for some soldiers.
The Patriot: There are a few things to like about this Mel Gibson Revolutionary War film, like John Williams’ amazing score and a strong performance by the late, great Heath Ledger. But the things to dislike about The Patriot as a war film are too prominent to ignore. For one there’s the total disregard for historical accuracy. The film squanders the potential for real exploration of the struggle between loyalty to the past and hope for the future. And the realism of the battle scenes proves less effective when countered by the family melodrama.
Kingdom of Heaven: How does a movie about bloody battle become boring? Look no further than Kingdom of Heaven, the story of a Crusades soldier defending Jerusalem in between existential pondering about the futility of fighting. The twisted allegiances and extreme convictions that drove the centuries-long religious campaigns are explained rather than shown, causing the audience to lose interest in the climactic fight for the holy city. At least Orlando Bloom looks more masculine than he was as the blond Legolas.
300: The stunning images of 300—rippling muscles, grotesque monsters bathed in blood and sunshine, slow-motion overload—recalled a comic book brought to life. But war isn’t meant to be pretty. Nor is it meant to feature pointless voiceover, orgies and a paradoxically non-threatening androgynous giant god-king as an antagonist.
Pearl Harbor: This movie could be indicted as a bad war film solely for the numerous historical inaccuracies—like making the base’s leader Admiral Kimmel look like an idiot who was golfing during the attack. But director Michael Bay outdoes himself by also making a just plain bad film. One of the worst days in American history is not the focus, but serves mostly as the backdrop for a maudlin love story. And the central triangle between Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett is forced, predictable and lacks any chemistry.
This is by no means a complete list, and its sure to stir up some debate. But isn’t that at least one thing war is good for?
Anne Northgraves is a senior cinema and photographer major who wants to remind you this isn’t Sparta. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.